Shame and Strife in The Salesman

Donald Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration went into effect Saturday, followed by massive protests at airports across the nation. His administration denies that it was a ban just on Muslims, pointing to the fact that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates were excluded from the ban (three countries where Trump has business interests). However, even people from banned Middle Eastern countries with legal status in the U.S. were denied entry, and Trump has promised that Christians will still be able to enter the country. One of the people now banned from coming to America is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose new film, “The Salesman,” is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie in question is a bold and moving film, and it’s a travesty that its creator has been denied entry to the U.S.

“The Salesman” opens with images of a home that seem out of place, old-fashioned, and unlike the homes normally shown in Iranian films. That’s because it’s the set for a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” that married couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) star in. The production comes at a tumultuous time in their lives — the married couple has to evacuate their apartment building because construction next to the building threatens to demolish it.

They quickly find a new apartment that one of their fellow actors owns. It’s a spacious and cheap option for them, but something is amiss. The previous tenant, a single woman, has locked all of her and her child’s belongings in the second bedroom. She communicates via phone that she won’t get them until she finds a new apartment, and she refuses to speak to the landlord. The nature of their conflict remains a mystery.

Once they’re settled in, Emad runs out to the store to get some supplies while Rana decides to take a shower. She hears a beep on the speaker system and assumes it’s Emad, so she unlocks the downstairs gate and leaves the apartment door open while she gets in the shower. Emad, who is still at the store, arrives later to find the stairs and bathroom covered in blood. He finds Rana at a hospital and learns that she was physically assaulted by someone while in the shower. Rana is still in shock — she didn’t see who attacked her (or at least doesn’t remember), and her head wound isn’t helping things.

Though Rana was not sexually assaulted, the shame of sexuality lingers over her every move. She refuses to let Emad call the police because she can’t bear telling the story to them. Farhadi, who also wrote the “The Salesman,” is a master at conveying unsaid meaning. It’s not that Rana can’t tell her story, but we understand that the police will question her morality. This sexism is attached to the previous tenant as well. Emad bats around the theory that the attacker may have been looking for the other woman, when one of the neighbors says “The lady had too many visitors.” They take her promiscuity as an excuse for the violence that might have been committed against her.

Even Emad’s view of his wife is warped by her attack, though he would never admit it aloud. He never attempts to hug her or comfort her, but just asks her to pull herself together. Their relationship was warmer before the attack, but he’s unwilling to articulate how it has tarnished her in his eyes. An outright critique of sexist and misogynist views in Iran would be a dicey proposition for Farhadi, but his characters make their prejudices clear without clumsily stating them outright. It also rings truer as a portrait of a society still in the midst of great social change.

In an interview on “The Frame,” Farhadi mentions that the film is about an Iran that is quickly changing, even though its people are still stuck repeating older behaviors. That’s shown quite literally in the early scenes where the apartment building is in danger of collapsing. The power shovel next door is a force of modernity, building a newer, more modern Tehran, while the people next door are unprepared for this change that threatens to upend their world. Emad and his neighbors fancy themselves as enlightened people (the neighbors say that he and Rana “are in culture”), but Rana’s assault throws Emad back into an older, more primitive mindset in which his wife is no longer his equal but a valuable possession to be protected. He’s at war with a desire to take this crime to the police and let society solve it, and with a deeper need to get his own revenge. When Emad is playing Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” he’s playing a man famous for having lost all control of his life. But he feels that same loss of control in his own life.

Hosseini and Alidoosti are masterful actors, and the degradation of their marriage is a heartbreaking sight. Farhadi has worked with both actors before, and there’s an ease and naturalism to the performances that seems to be the result of that relationship. Farhadi sticks to a low-key realism throughout the film, but it perfectly accentuates the tension in Emad and Rana’s relationship.

Farhadi is one of the greatest of contemporary filmmakers in Iran, a nation with many important directors. The day after Donald Trump’s Muslim ban took effect, Farhadi said he wouldn’t be attending the Oscar ceremony, even if some accommodation were made for him. Alidoosti also chose not attend in protest of what she referred to as a racist ban. Farhadi has said that Iranians know a great deal about Americans, whereas Americans know very little about Iranians. It should be to our great shame that these bans have diminished what little artistic dialogue there is between the two countries.

Watch the trailer below:

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